Who knew Marco Island had so many history buffs? The Rose History Auditorium at the Marco Island History Museum was packed to the rafters for a lecture on Tuesday night that promised to give the listener “Florida in 40 minutes.”
Dr. Michael Gannon, emeritus professor of history at the University of Florida, delivered the talk, sponsored by the Marco Island Historical Society. The contents come from his book, “Michael Gannon’s History of Florida in 40 Minutes,” and that’s what he delivered, although a little overtime was added for questions from the audience.
That audience filled every available chair, was standing-room-only in the back of the hall, and spilled over into the lobby. They hung on Gannon’s words, although he rarely raised his head from the text in front of him as he took the group through Florida’s history.
That history, said Gannon, can be divided up into ten major eras or categories. He started at the beginning, with the native Americans he tagged as Florida’s first land developers. The Timucua, the Apalachee, and the Calusa left no written records, and the Seminoles didn’t show up until later.
When the Spaniards, the second major factor in Gannon’s chronology arrived, they decimated or enslaved the natives, but did keep records, giving us what little we know of the earlier inhabitants. Gannon recited the first few lines of the Lord’s Prayer in Timucuan, although he could have been reading the Communist Manifesto in Urdu, and probably have gotten away with it, for all anyone in the room knew.
British influence was felt beginning in 1702, when bloody raids, an “atrocity that continues to elude American history textbooks,” wiped out the Spanish missions. Both East Florida and West Florida, the “14th and 15th colonies we never hear about,” remained loyal to the English crown during the Revolutionary War.
Florida became a United States possession with the Treaty of Cession in 1819, taking effect in 1821 when the U.S. assumed $5 million in Spanish debt. The first territorial governor was Andrew Jackson, who only stayed three months, perhaps qualifying him as the first “snowbird.”
Another snowbird, Ralph Waldo Emerson, visited Tallahassee, and Gannon quoted his description of the town in full: “Tallahassee is a grotesque place, settled by office holders, speculators and desperadoes.” In other words, said the Gator professor, nothing has changed.
The state’s history of butchery, enslavement and forced exile continued with the Second Seminole War, the longest Indian war ever fought in this country. Florida became a state in 1845, and Gannon displayed the first state flag, emblazoned with the pithy motto “Let Us Alone.”
In the Civil War, 5,000 Floridians died fighting for the Confederacy. Afterward, black codes, Jim Crow laws, and poll taxes effectively disenfranchised the African-American population.
Moving briskly along, Gannon’s talk covered Henry Flagler, and the land boom of the 1920s, which went bust in 1926, sending Florida into the Great Depression three years ahead of the rest of the country. World War II brought two million servicemen and women to the state for training, and after the war, many returned.
Bringing us into the modern era, for his tenth bullet point, Gannon cited three major factors: air conditioning, mosquito control, and VA home loans. In 2008, he said, residential electric hookups declined for the first time in 40 years, ushering in a new land bust. Overall, though, growth continues, and Florida is poised to pass New York as the third most populous state. The principal source of pollution, a major problem, is the homes of the people who live here, he said.
Gannon, himself a Floridian since he entered high school in 1941 in St. Augustine, said the hurricanes of the last decade may have been a classic example of an ill wind that blows some good, helping unite the historically fragmented state. As he pointed out, it is nearly as far from Pensacola to Chicago as it is from Pensacola to Key West by road, and everyone here is from somewhere else.
After the talk, Gannon signed copies of his book for purchasers.
“It was wonderful, the way he filled out the history,” said Jim Rossi. “I got goosebumps.”
“He’s a very clear, concise speaker,” said Jayne Workman. “He had humor, anecdotes, and quotes, to liven up our long, long history.”
History buffs can get another fix on Saturday, February 25, when the historical society and the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island present a talk by Dr. Thomas Schwartz on the “Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln” for Presidents’ Day.